The debut album from WHY? multi-instrumentalist Josiah Wolf offers up a rare achievement–a solo work with true legs of its own. Wolf’s visual snapshots illustrate the wistfulness of a mundane moment and offer canny excavations of those poignancies that lie beneath the surface: tough triumphs, tougher truths, and outright failures. His lean poems are set to an autumnal mix of warm folk and easy psychedelia played out (by Wolf alone) on guitar, vibes, kalimba, Hammond organ, bells, bass, and drums, to name a few. The end result, a sort of chamber pop minus the showy sweeps–virtuosity without the virtuoso–makes Jet Lag as impressive in its subtle execution as it is a timeless, heartfelt listen.
“The Trailer and the Truck” opens the album like a lost thought on its way out of sleep. Notes freed by mallets bounce into the fuzzy foreground, bent chords stretch out from metal strings, then bundled bursts of drum-and-strum clear the way for Wolf’s voice. On “Master Cleanse (California),” he mulls over region and religion atop spare acoustics and a kaleidoscopic chorus where shimmering sounds move to an elastic tempo. One of the album’s best follows, “The Opposite of Breathing,” with a shuffling beat, cool tones, and rich textures that evoke late-’60s Greenwich Village.
Throughout these songs, style and substance are treated with equal aplomb. The rolling bass and bright vocals of “The New Car” split the difference between The Zombies and Daniel Johnston. “The Apart Meant” rolls out a cloudy darkness; after such heaviness, the quiet Paul Simon folk of “That Kind of Man” feels like fresh air, while “Ohioho” is genuinely sunny.
Jet Lag came together following the dissolution of an eleven-year relationship, and during a move from California back to the Midwest, where Wolf grew up. But its final two songs only look back long enough to prepare their author for newness. The stormy “Gravity Defied” conveys that knowing resignation that eventually comes, while on album-ender “The One Sign,” the breeze that Wolf was waiting on becomes a gale threatening to crash a loaded airplane. Rather than cower together or pray to God, however, the passengers stand to face fate head on. Wolf’s final lyric–“‘Heaven help me’ are just words that time will make you say”–echoes out before the shelter offered by the song dissolves into the outdoors.